From smartwatches and fitness trackers to VR headsets, smart jewelry, smart glasses and many more, wearables are changing how consumers communicate, monitor and share information and experiences. Brands have also begun focusing on making their devices relevant by focusing on fewer niches and features that work well.
The push to make wearable products smarter, lighter and more convenient brings with itself some key challenges in the design and development of wearables. Besides the cost of the device itself, listed below are some of the key challenges in the development of wearable devices and their adoption by the masses.
1) Battery Life
Battery life is one of the biggest challenges in wearable product development. Wearable devices require effective power management as battery space is limited. Therefore, in order for the devices to run for a reasonable time frame, efficient use of available battery life is key.
For this reason (among a few others), we see most wearable devices using Bluetooth for communicating instead of Wi-Fi. Extensive research by Rahul Balani, a student of University of California, LA showed that in some cases, Bluetooth technology was found to use less than 3% of the energy used by Wi-Fi for performing the same tasks.
We also see other power-saving features like the E-Ink display on the Sony SmartBand Talk which are essential to extending the operating time for wearable devices.
Ergonomics and comfort are of prime importance, especially in wearable devices that are meant to be worn for a long period of time. Ideally, the comfort levels should be such that the user is not constantly reminded of something additional strapped onto their body.
This level of comfort and ergonomics are possible with industrial design that explores perfectly fitting shapes and forms through prototyping and then refining those further based on feedback from users. The materials of the device should also be chosen carefully to avoid problems like irritation or allergies as was in the case of Fitbit which had to recall it’s Force band in 2014.
Long term use may also heat up the device, which can cause discomfort to the user. This should be mitigated by making the electronics as efficient as possible.
3) Differentiating and Providing Value
Getting people to wear your product is not easy. A person can wear only so many devices and there are several other products competing for that space.
Apart from the value a product provides, people buy a story to which they can relate to and express themselves. With wearable products it is even more important that the product appeals at an emotional level, through a design that is both aesthetically pleasing and marketable.
Wearable devices with novel features, especially in the healthcare & medical devices industry present a great opportunity that is yet to be fully explored. However, your product should offer compelling value in order for people to justify having your device on their body.
As Astro Teller, who led the development of Google Glass says, “There’s no point in having [Glass] be on your body unless you can give people something they really couldn’t get otherwise. It has to be qualitatively better for it to be worn.”
Waterproofing is another challenging area for wearables and needs a dedicated post, but since this is an overview about wearable devices, we’ll talk about waterproofing briefly.
Wearable products are exposed to water and sweat at several occasions - during shower, washing hands, or during sporting activities - and for varying duration. All these situations demand different levels of protection against water entering the device.
This level is determined by the IP Rating (Ingress Protection Rating) ranging from IP00 to IP68. The first digit after “IP” specifies the level of protection against solids (like dust particles) and the second digit specifies protection against water.
For example, if a product is rated as IP64, it means that it’s fully protected against dust ingress as well as protected from splashing water from any direction. Such products are often marketed as “splash resistant”
Sweat contains salts which can corrode metal, and many products have exposed metal pins for charging. If not protected, these pins can corrode, either from sweat or air. Gold plating the contacts helps prevent corrosion among several other benefits.
5) Miniaturization and Integration
Radio and Antennae integration is as such somewhat challenging in mobile devices like laptops and smartphones. With wearable devices, these challenges are taken a notch higher given the small form factor of these products. Effective integration of multiple antennae with reasonable signal strength at this small size is difficult.
The small form factor of wearable devices poses a challenge in compactly packing hardware into very little space as well as manufacturing.
In order to provide small form factors, manufacturers are pushing the boundaries with MIDs (Molded Interconnect Devices) which can embed components like antenna directly into the housing itself.
To counter the relative bulk of USB connectors for charging, wearable devices are increasingly using pin-type charging or wireless charging, which also help in waterproofing.
6) Safety, Security and Privacy
Lithium batteries can be dangerous if mishandled or are of substandard quality, and with wearable devices containing these batteries being so close to the body all the time, there is a potential safety risk.
We have seen Samsung’s batteries catching fire, and there has also been a case of Fitbit’s Flex 2 exploding on a woman’s wrist due to damage to the battery.
It is therefore important to design the wearable products to be rugged enough to take everyday stresses and falls.
There are also safety concerns regarding the radiations emitted by wearable devices at close proximity to vital organs of the body.
Security and Privacy concerns of wearable devices are mostly about the user data being hacked and manipulated, insecure communication, physical theft of data, use of wearable tech (like hidden cameras, microphones etc) for spying, lack of encryption and other vulnerabilities.